What is a Christian? We can answer this question from a few different perspectives. But, the first part of the answer must deal with content. You must believe a certain set of beliefs. The Apostle Paul explains, “by [believing these truths] you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1 Corinthians 15:2). Christians, for almost 2000 years, have universally held out at least 12 basic truths that define the necessary basis of the Faith. These 12 beliefs are found in the Bible. But a statement called the Apostle’s Creed has helpfully summarized them. There may be more to being a Christian than merely believing the 12 basic beliefs of the Christianity, but there can never be less.
Origin of the Apostle’s Creed
It is an exciting thing to consider a universally acknowledged creed. The latin word credo means “I believe.” A Christian creed is a summary of what a Christian believes. Known as the best and most ancient summary or Rule (Gk Κανών) of Faith, the Apostle’s Creed is one of the most important historic documents of the Christian Church. It developed as a baptismal profession (said at baptism as a testimony) sometime around the turn of the 1st or beginning of the 2nd centuries. The Church gradually tweaked it, until the Creed came to the final form we use today during the 4th century. When you study and profess to believe it, you are joining your faith with every Christian, who has ever lived, anywhere in the world.
Irenaeus (AD 130-202) studied Christianity under Polycarp (AD 69-155). Polycarp was a colleague and corespondent of both Papias (AD 66-130) and Ignatius (AD 35-107). History knows Polycarp, along with Papias and Ignatius to be close companions of several Apostles. In particular they all had long discipleships under John the Apostle. Very few people in history could claim the pedigree of Polycarp (and by extension Irenaeus). John Behr, a scholar who studies the early church leaders reports Irenaeus to be “the most profound and influential theologian of the second century a decisive period in the history of Christianity” (“St Irenaeus of Lyons” introduction to On the Apostolic Preaching, p 1: Amazon;.ca;.co.uk).
Irenaeus produced the “earliest summary of Christian teaching” (Ibid, 7). He warns that people fall away from the faith, when they accept false teaching, or twist scripture themselves. To keep safe, he writes, “we must keep the rule (κανών) of faith unswervingly.”(chapter 3). Later in chapters 6-7 (and also in another work, Against Heresies 1:10:1), he expands on this phrase and explains its content, which is fundamentally the information we now call the Apostle’s Creed. From this early time on, the divider between an orthodox Christian and a cultists has been this rule of faith.
Affirmation of the Apostle’s Creed
Every recognized church tradition affirms the creed. For example, the Articles of Faith for the Anglican Church proclaim:
That which is called the Apostle’s Creed ought thoroughly to be received and believed [and note the reason given…] because what it contains may be proved by most certain Scripture warrants (Article VIII).
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls the creed, “the Church’s faith” (art. 26). John Calvin, the French Reformer wrote his Institutes of the Christian Faith as a commentary on this creed. Zacharius Ursinus as the author of the Heidelberg Catechism. He affirmed this Creed, “signifies a brief and summary form of the Christian faith, which distinguishes the church and her members from the various sects.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 117)
Summary of the Apostle’s Creed
- I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
- And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
- Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
- Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; He descended to the dead:
- on the third day he rose again from the dead;
- He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
- And will come to judge the living and the dead.
- I believe in the Holy Spirit,
- The holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
- The forgiveness of sins,
- The resurrection of the body,
- And the life everlasting. Amen.
Explanation of the Apostle’s Creed
I plan to take several posts to look at the beliefs expressed in the Creed. But in the meanwhile, a great basic commentary on these twelve teachings can be found in this excellent article. For a historical perspective, see the commentary from this 1543 King’s Book, which begins with this introduction:
FIRST, it is to be noted, that all and singular the twelve articles contained in this Creed be so necessary to be believed for man’s salvation, that whosoever will not constantly believe them, or will obstinately affirm the contrary of them, cannot be the very members of Christ and his espouse the church, but are very infidels or heretics, and members of the Devil, with whom they shall be perpetually damned.
Secondly, it is to be noted, that all true Christian men ought and must most constantly believe, maintain, and defend all those things to be true which be comprehended in this Creed, and in the other two Creeds, whereof the one is used to be said at mass, and is approved by the ancient general councils; and the other was made by the holy man Athanasius: and also all other things which be comprehended in the whole body and canon of the Bible.
Thirdly, that all true Christian men ought and must not only repute, take, and hold all the said things for the most holy, most sure, and most certain and infallible truths of God’s word, and such as neither ought ne can be altered or convelled by any contrary opinion or authority; but also must take and interpretate all the same things according to the selfsame sentence and interpretation which the words of scripture do signify, and the holy approved doctors of the church do agreeably entreat and defend.
Fourthly, that all true Christian men ought and must utterly refuse and condemn all those opinions contrary to the said twelve articles of our Creed, which were of long time past condemned in the four holy councils, that is to say, in the council of Nice, Constantinople, Ephese, and Calcidonense.